Dr. Erin Fitzgerald is a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in the Basic Science Office within the Office of the Director, Defense Research and Engineering in the Department of Defense, where she develops strategic plans for future basic research investments.
This January, I was surprise to receive an email from Randy Atkins, the Senior Media Relations Officer at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Although I had worked briefly last year at the National Academies before joining the Department of Defense in September 2009, I had never met Randy. (I did know his name and voice, however, from listening to NAE Engineering Innovation podcasts.)
Even more surprising was why Randy had contacted me: he wanted ideas for what a Barbie doll would look like if she were a computer engineer!
It turns out that every few years Mattel announces a new career for Barbie, and then in turn releases a new doll fitting of that career. This year, the career was selected by online vote from five possible options: architect, anchorwoman, computer engineer, environmentalist, and surgeon. The vote was targeted toward young girls, but computer engineers and scientists—such as Systers (the world’s largest email community of technical women in computing) and the Society of Women Engineers—organized their own online “get out the vote” effort.
When Randy emailed me (as suggested by one of my former co-workers at the National Academies) it seemed likely that Barbie, the computer engineer, would win the online vote. In preparation, Mattel had asked NAE for some suggestions on what a young, trendy computer engineer Barbie might look like. It was 5pm, and Randy wanted my ideas by the next morning.
I was excited by the possibilities that quickly came to mind. I wrote many friends from my undergraduate and graduate electrical and computer engineering programs, as well as from various technical internships. I received some great suggestions, from dressing Computer Engineer Barbie in a bright, fun “bunny” suit for chip fabrication facilities like those once seen in Intel commercials, to which tech toys Computer Engineer Barbie should carry. Several friends even thought of ways to incorporate fun interactive logic puzzles like a Rubik’s cube or online games in the doll packaging so that girls could not only see that engineers could be accessible and hip, but that problem solving itself can be fun.
By the next morning, I had plenty of ideas for Randy. Within another month, it was official: Barbie the Computer Engineer was the winner (along with Barbie the anchorwoman). I consulted on another iteration of feedback on Mattel’s doll sketches as they got closer to a version that was appealing for girls while suitably representing the computer engineering field. Although not all of the ideas I presented to Mattel made it to Computer Engineer Barbie, it was fun to be part of the process. The doll comes out this fall. She’ll be wearing a binary code patterned tee and equipped with all the latest gadgets, including a smartphone, Bluetooth headset, and laptop travel bag (see image, right).
It might seem silly to get excited about a new Barbie doll. But, to me, she will help reinforce in math-loving little girls that they, like Barbie, can grow up to be computer engineers. It has been well documented that in recent years far fewer women are pursuing computer science degrees, so such role models are very important. What Computer Engineer Barbie will do, I think, is broaden the realm of not only what is possible, but what feels accessible—being smart, confident, and tech-savvy without sacrificing femininity or fun.